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- July 21, 1986
- Vol. 26
- No. 3
For the Freedom to Sail Alone in Gale and Storm, the Czech Adventurer Defected and Now Is Casting Off Again
Below deck, his pretty, dark-haired wife, Miki, worked in the cramped galley. Topside, Konkolski's 11-year-old son, Richard Jr., watched the green countryside slip past. He had no idea he was seeing it for the last time. Behind them, Konkolski had left everything he had worked for in 38 years under communism: a good factory job, a four-room apartment, a 1,500-cc Lada sedan, a personal library of 8,000 books and a small summerhouse on which he and Miki had slaved for six years with hammer, saw and plastering trowel. He had owned it all outright, through hard work and sweat and daring, and now he was letting it go.
Ahead lay freedom, and they'd almost blown it at the start.
At the border post on the Oder River between Czechoslovakia and Poland, the guards had hailed him happily. They knew the blond-bearded, barrel-chested sailor well from past voyages. Konkolski, after all, was a hero not only in his homeland but in Poland too. The author of 11 books on his seagoing adventures and on technical aspects of sailing, he was the first Czech ever to sail the Atlantic alone, and the first of his 15 million compatriots ever to circumnavigate the globe. It was his government's sudden refusal to let him try a second time that had put him on this course from which there could be no return.
But the border guards didn't know this. Only the computer did.
At the checkpoint, Konkolski swapped jokes and gossip with the guards as one of them leafed through his papers. "Richard," he said, frowning. "I see here that it's your birthday."
Konkolski's heart capsized. If the guard could spot so small a detail in this ocean of bureaucratic jargon, what else might he find?
But then the guard smiled. "Let's have a drink and celebrate!"
Konkolski grinned with sudden relief and tossed back glass after glass of Scotch as the guards toasted his health. "I think my wife has a cake," he said in a flash of inspiration. Miki brought it out, and an impromptu birthday party was held on the spot.
Then, unbelievably, the guards waved them on.
Only much later, as the white-hulled 44-foot sloop Nike II entered the Kiel Canal in West Germany, did Konkolski break the news to his son. They were defecting. He would never see his homeland, his relatives or his friends again.
"I have tears on my face as I tell him," Konkolski recalled recently in Newport, R.I., his eyes misting once again at the memory. "But my boy, he very unhappier. He had good life in Czechoslovakia—swimming, sailing, toys, his own room—better than he have here so far. 'What about my bicycle?' he ask. 'My Jules Verne books? My down pillow and comforter?' But his mother and I reassure him—all those things are aboard, hidden below. Strange, what children hold valuable."
That was in July 1982. The Konkolskis made good their escape—first to West Germany (where Richard mailed 2,000 letters to friends back home explaining his reasons for leaving), then to Plymouth, England, and on across the Atlantic to Newport. Ten days after his arrival in the U.S., he was off alone on his second circumnavigation, as a competitor in the first BOC (British Oxygen Corporation) Challenge, a single-handed, around-the-world race with a $25,000 first prize. Now, four years later, having won asylum and established himself in Newport as a boat designer and home-building contractor, Konkolski is preparing once again to set sail in the 1986 BOC race. He and 36 other sailors will sheet home their mainsails on Aug. 30 in Newport. "Another 10 months at sea," Konkolski says with mixed eagerness and regret. "I'm afraid I love it."
His wife, normally an outspoken woman, looks away, biting her lip. In their 22 years of marriage, he has been gone—alone at sea—for more than five. "Yet that is his life," she says, "and I cannot forbid him."
Born 43 years ago in the Oder River town of Bohumin, Konkolski never knew his father, Ernest, a World War II resistance fighter who was killed in Vienna in 1944. "They had to hide out in a flat," Konkolski says, "and Gestapo came to capture them. My father stay behind to hold them off while his comrades escape. My mother was bringing food to them that very day. She was in apartment across the road when gunfire start. Gestapo shot him dead. At least he was not tortured."
His mother remarried, and Richard grew up in his birthplace, always dreaming of the sea. "In our boyhood games, playing war, I was always admiral," he says. "I read much books of the sea. Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe, Melville and Jack London and later Joseph Conrad. But my favorite was Jules Verne, just as my boy today." A champion sailor, canoeist and kayaker, Richard began racing dinghies at 16, winning more than 40 races. He was 26 before he saw saltwater for the first time, in a 1970 Baltic Sea race in which he finished third at the helm of a 38-foot racing sailboat. But his imagination required a wider horizon. "To fulfill my dreams of the sea," he says, "I knew I have to sail singlehanded, like my hero Joshua Slocum, the American who became first man ever to sail alone around the world."
Married since 1964 and working at the Lachema chemical factory in Bohumin—first as a plasterer and foreman, later as chief master builder and maintenance technician—he set to work in his spare time to build a seagoing vessel. In 1970, with materials he bought and fitted himself, he finished Nike I, a 24-foot yawl with 225 square feet of sail area—one of the smallest yachts in her ocean-racing class. It had taken two years—5,000 hours—of his time, as well as the cooperation of his factory, which had let him use its tools and space for some of the work and had given him the few things he couldn't build himself: a life raft, a sextant and a radio.
"Since boat was technically owned by the Bohumin sailing club, I must defer to them in naming her," he says. "Many names were proposed [by the government]: Druzhba, which mean friendship; Mir, or peace; Help, because of course the Russians help us to our freedom. One name proposed was Fiftieth Anniversary of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, but even they could see it is a bit clumsy if painted on the transom. In the end they left it up to the boat's christening mother, who was wife of another factory's manager. I told her I like the name Nike—the Greek goddess of victory, not the tennis sneakers. She like it too, so that was it."
Provided with a mere 80 English pounds by his government, of which 25 would go for the entry fee, Konkolski sailed forth in June 1972, in the London Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race (called OSTAR) from Plymouth to Newport. "I was dismasted in a gale a few days out and had to return to England," he says. "But friends there bought me a new mast, and after two weeks of repairs I was back in the race." He finished 41st in the 60-boat fleet, though Nike was the second smallest boat in the race.
Having come that far, Konkolski decided—like Columbus before him—to sail on. Clear around the world. It took him three years. "But only 343 days at sea," he adds. "I stop often to work, earn money to continue." He repaired boats in Tahiti, built a concrete-block house for a Polynesian chief on the island of Rangiroa and laid 2,000 bricks a day building a farmhouse in Africa.
Storms took their toll on both him and Nike. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope, he capsized three times in one night and was almost run down by a freighter. During one of the knockdowns, he was thrown clear "like a bullet" of his vessel with no lifeline. He swam frantically toward the drifting hull, striking for the spot where he knew the mast would emerge when the boat righted herself. Desperately he grabbed a strand of broken rigging wire and hauled himself aboard just as Nike prepared to depart for the South Atlantic without him. Then he began getting the boat shipshape again, picking his way along a cabin deck that was a skidway of smashed eggs, flour, avocados and seawater. "There is no better bilge pump than a scared man with a bucket," he says.
After 33,661 nautical miles, Konkolski met his wife in Plymouth before sailing triumphantly home. At Swinoujscie on the Polish coast, he was greeted by at least 10,000 cheering fans, and for the next eight years his successes were legend. In the 1976 OSTAR, a race marked by continuous gales that forced half the fleet out of the running, he finished second on corrected time among 125 entrants. In the 1980 race, despite powerful east-to-west winds that favored multihull boats, Konkolski crossed the 3,000 miles in 21 days 6 hours to finish ninth overall among 90 entrants. By now he had built a new boat, Nike II, and become a certified national celebrity, writing books, making television appearances and giving lectures—"all of them for free," he says. But his involvement with the dissident faction of a union made him enemies in the central committees of both the Czechoslovakian Communist Party and the union itself. By early 1982 he was certain that the powers arrayed against him would never let him sail the Atlantic again, much less circle the globe. The 1982 BOC Challenge was coming up and Konkolski was facing a crisis. "Sailing is my life," he says. "To deny me the right to sail was to destroy me."
There were several bureaucratic avenues Konkolski could pursue to get permission to compete in the BOC, and he tried them all. He discovered, among other things, that the best way to get action was to beard an official at his office late on a Friday afternoon. "They all want long weekend," he says with a laugh, "so is possible to catch them in a hurry without them thinking too much about what they are signing." Even at that he was unable to get final approval to leave the country. The race deadline was fast approaching.
"My wife and I sat down and talked about it," he says. "She agree with me that we must leave, painful as it is." Nike II was moored at Szczecin, in Poland on the Baltic Sea. Slowly, inconspicuously, the Konkolskis began loading the boat with the personal items they felt they could bring away with them, including 2,000 books, enough food for two years (1½ tons), their son's bike and favorite pillow. They would have no money at all until they could begin building a new life.
The day before their Tuesday departure, Konkolski took care to putter around the house like any other Czech on his free time. He painted the garage doors, leaving one of them half done. He dug a trench to reroute an electric power cable. Then the next morning he and his family left without looking back.
Arriving in Newport penniless just 10 days before the start of the BOC race, Konkolski stashed his wife and son with friends, then set sail a second time around the world by himself. On the first leg, after leading his class, he was becalmed for 17 days near the Cape Verde Islands. The day before the start of the second leg, from Cape-town to Sydney, Australia, he injured his back and was temporarily paralyzed. "Doctors in South Africa recommended I stop sailing," he says. "I bought a corset and some painkillers, and five days later I took off." In 10 days more he had caught up with the fleet in the roaring 40s (the latitude in the Southern Hemisphere where winds can produce rough waters), then passed it. But a knockdown while the engine was running caused oil to drain from the crankcase, and he burned out a bearing. No power, no autopilot. He steered the remaining 3,000 miles by hand, averaging 110 miles a day and almost no sleep (a rope tied between the wheel and his neck or arm would jolt him awake if the boat veered off course). "I lost most of my skin," he says. "My fingers were so swollen I could not open the cabin lockers."
Still, he managed to win the third and fourth legs of the race and finished third in Class 2, setting at least three world records along the 28,975-mile course and averaging more than 142 miles a day overall. In his absence the Czechoslovakian government seized all his property, tried him in absentia, sentenced him to 10 years in prison and fined him 3.25 million crowns—about $50 million—for "stealing" the boat he'd built himself. "It ridiculous," Konkolski snorts. "The government itself surveyed the boat early in 1982 and valued her at 32,500 crowns. I also learn they sell my mountain farmhouse to an official for 54,000 crowns. Miki and I put 120,000 crowns of materials in that house."
Doesn't Konkolski fear that his former government might take revenge on him or his family? "Not likely," he says. "If I were to sink on the sea or die even by a legitimate accident, there would be bad publicity all over world. My friends know why I left. They would spread word." Konkolski's main concern at the moment involves preparations for this year's BOC. Until a few weeks ago he thought he had a deal with millionaire circumnavigator Dodge Morgan to use Morgan's 60-foot American Promise for the race, but that seems to have fallen through. So he is revamping Nike II instead. "I have renamed her Declaration of Independence," he says. "It is my independence. Since I cannot become U.S. citizen until 1989 at earliest, I am man without country. On entry form for race, under which nation I represent, I wrote—'The Free World.' "
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